The works that Picasso created during the early years of World War II are dominated by the image of his mistress, Dora Maar. Of the forty-nine oils executed in the last three months of 1939, all but eleven are portraits of Dora, the present picture among them. Innumerable drawings and sketches of Dora bear witness to her mounting importance within Picasso's art. With their fantastically original distortions and their disquieting sense of gothic, almost monstrous, vitality, the portraits of Dora are a masterful record both of Picasso's tempestuous relationship with his mistress and of the anxiety that pervaded wartime France. Perhaps more importantly, they represent a critical step in Picasso's ceaseless exploration of the artistic possibilities of the human figure and, as such, are an essential chapter in the history of twentieth century portraiture. As Brigitte Léal wrote in the catalogue to the 1996 exhibition of Picasso's portraits at The Museum of Modern Art:
Their terribilità no doubt explains why the innumerable, very different portraits that Picasso did of [Dora] remain among the finest achievements of his art, at a time when he was engaged in a sort of third path, verging on Surrealist representation while rejecting strict representation and, naturally, abstraction. Today, more than ever, the fascination that the image of this admirable, but suffering and alienated, face exerts on us incontestably ensues from its coinciding with our modern consciousness of the body in its threefold dimension of precariousness, ambiguity, and monstrosity. There is no doubt that by signing these portraits, Picasso tolled the final bell for the reign of ideal beauty and opened the way for the aesthetic tyranny of a sort of terrible and tragic beauty, the fruit of our contemporary history (B. Léal, "For Charming Dora: Portraits of Dora Maar", Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 385).
Dora Maar was born in Tours in 1909, the daughter of a Yugoslavian architect; she spent most of her youth in Argentina before returning to France in the late 1920s. As a young photographer in the early 1930s, she shared a studio with Brassaï and later lived with Georges Bataille and then cinematographer Louis Chavance. She was an intimate of the Surrealist movement and it was through Paul Eluard that she first met Picasso in 1936. A woman of extraordinary intelligence and striking beauty (fig. 1), Dora was a continual source of inspiration to Picasso throughout their relationship. As Françoise Gilot, one of Picasso's later lovers, reported, Dora Maar "had a beautiful oval face but a heavy jaw, which is a characteristic trait of almost all the portraits Picasso made of her. Her hair was black and pulled back in a severe, starkly dramatic coiffure. I noticed her intense bronze-green eyes, and her slender hands with their long, tapering fingers" (F. Gilot, Life with Picasso, London, 1965, p. 14). Other friends of the painter recalled, "Her expressive head with its characteristically asymmetric face, attracted him both as a painter and as a man" (W. Boeck and J. Sabartès, Picasso, London, 1961, p. 243). And Roland Penrose has commented, "Since Picasso began to draw portraits of Dora Maar when he was staying at Mougins in 1936, her face became more and more an obsession" (R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, London, 1958, pp. 303-304).
Although the paintings which Picasso made during the war only rarely have overt political content, they bear the unmistakable stamp of the wartime ambiance. As Picasso once explained, "I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict. But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done" (quoted in M. Goggin, Picasso and his Art during the German Occupation: 1940-1944, Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 1985, p. 395). This is perhaps clearest in the strident emotional quality of the portraits of Dora Maar, with their dramatic distortions and bold re-arrangements of the human form. The present work, for example, reveals the artist's desire to completely render anew the sitter's physiognomy by simultaneously displaying Dora in both profile and frontal poses. Her face is clearly outlined in profile; yet the facial features are frontally arranged in such a manner that it resembles less a face and more a mask. Dora's eyes are positioned adjacent to each other, the lines of the nose repeat the curves of the left profile, and her mouth is located on the right side of the face. The painting's palette consists of brilliant hues of yellow, magenta, light blue and green, which creates an arresting image of startling immediacy. Despite the distortions of the facial features, Picasso retains the classical proportions of Dora's face, thus lending a refined air to the portrait which is emphasized by her plumed hat.
Similar pictorial distortions are manifest in earlier portraits of Dora, such as in the Femme qui pleure series of 1937. Picasso had used this particular image of Dora as a woman weeping in his epic mural Guernica executed the same year. In one example (fig. 2), Picasso again focuses on Dora's expressive face as she gazes up in horrified anguish. The sense of pathos captured in the Femme qui pleure series is diminished in the present painting; yet, the dramatic contours and strong coloration remain constant.
Buste de femme assise sur une chaise also exhibits a strong Surrealist element. While living in Paris, Picasso began to explore Surrealist practices of harnessing the unconscious and dreams, and to represent mythological characters and symbols in his work. The reconfiguration of Dora's face is very similar to a Surrealist-influenced picture, Nature morte. Bougie, palette, tête de taureau rouge, executed in 1938 (fig. 3). The head of the bull possesses similar distortions of the visage, which can be seen from more than one viewpoint. This in effect creates a radically new way of depicting the figure that is at once representational and abstract.
Picasso painted innumerable works portraying his lover in an armchair--the celebrated Cubist manifesto depicting Eva Gouel, Femme assise dans un fauteuil, 1913 (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 364; Victor and Sally Ganz sale, Christie's, New York, 10 November 1997), the well-known Neo-classical portrait of his wife Olga Kokhlova, 1917 in the Musée Picasso (Zervos, vol. 3, no. 83), and his voluptuous portraits of Marie-Thérèse Walter, such as Le rêve (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 364; Victor and Sally Ganz; sale, Christie's, New York, 10 November 1997) and Nu au fauteuil noir (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 377; Madeleine Haas Russell; sale, Christie's, New York, 9 November 1999).
(fig. 1) Dora Maar, 1936.
(Photograph by Man Ray).
© 2000 Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Femme qui pleure (state VI), 1937.
© 2000 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Nature morte. Bougie, palette, tête de taureau rouge, 1938.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
© 2000 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Buste de femme assise sur une chaise
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY OF A WEST COAST COLLECTOR
Signed 'Picasso' (upper left)
New York, Durand-Ruel Galleries, Picasso, May 1948, no. 15 (illustrated).
25½ x 19¾ in. (64.9 x 50.2 cm.)
C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1972, vol. 9, no. 354 (illustrated, pl. 166).
Galerie Louis Carré, Paris.
Durand-Ruel Galleries, New York.
Galerie Beyeler, Basel.
Harold Diamond, New York.
Anon. sale, Sotheby's, New York, 18 November 1986, lot 46A.
Galería Theo, Madrid.
Acquired from the above by the present owner, November 1987.